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Death penalty a possibility in post office killings

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 8:47 p.m. CDT

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – A former prison guard charged with killing two Tennessee postal workers during a robbery that netted $63 is eligible to face the death penalty at trial, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

In a 261-page ruling, U.S. Senior District Judge Jon P. McCalla said 50-year-old Chastain Montgomery is not mentally disabled and thus eligible to face the punishment on charges that he killed Paula Robinson and Judy Spray in the post office in rural Henning in October 2010.

U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton announced in March that he planned to seek the death penalty against Montgomery at the trial scheduled to begin April 7. Executions of federal inmates are rare – only three men have been carried out under the federal death penalty since 1963.

Prosecutors say Robinson and Spray were fatally shot during a robbery committed by Montgomery and his 18-year-old son Chastain Montgomery Jr. The pair opened fire after they became angry that the post office had just $63 to steal, prosecutors said.

The younger Montgomery was killed in a shootout with police in Mason in February 2011, after he was stopped while driving a stolen truck. The elder Montgomery was arrested at the crime scene when authorities said he showed up in the car used as a getaway vehicle in the post office shooting and tried to get to his son's body.

Defense attorneys Michael Scholl and Anne Tipton filed a motion to determine that Montgomery was mentally disabled and unfit to face the death penalty under the guidelines presented by the U.S. Supreme Court case, Atkins v. Virginia. They claimed that the death penalty violates his right to due process and right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Psychologists testified in a December hearing that three IQ tests Montgomery took as a child and adult showed he has a mild intellectual disability, with scores under 70.

Montgomery's mother, Lois Montgomery, testified in December that her son struggled to learn simple tasks such as cleaning his room and getting dressed on his own while growing up. He sometimes would hide in a closet in their home, she said.

"He was slow," she testified. "You would tell him several times how to do things but he had trouble catching on."

But prosecutors argued that Montgomery's IQ tests don't reflect that Montgomery was able to function in society. The government argued that Montgomery was able to attend college and hold jobs, including a long tenure at a West Tennessee prison.

Prosecutors claim Montgomery knowingly used lethal force against federal employees in an attempt to take something of monetary value, according to court documents. Prosecutors say Montgomery has shown no remorse and is capable of "future dangerousness."

In the December hearing, which lasted several days, Montgomery had to be restrained twice due to outbursts in court. In one of the outbursts, he threatened that he was going to kill a witness who was testifying. He also has been accused by prosecutors of making a knife-like weapon known as a "shank" and planning to escape jail by attacking a U.S. marshal with it.

In his ruling, McCalla said Montgomery does not suffer from the adaptive limitations described in the Atkins case that are required for a finding of intellectual disability. Those limitations include the diminished ability to understand and process information, communicate, learn from experience and control impulses.

"Defendant has had no difficulty obtaining and keeping multiple jobs and successfully worked various corrections and security-related jobs with different levels of complexity over a period of over 20 years," McCalla wrote. "The evidence in the case has shown that persons with mild mental retardation/intellectual disability are not successfully employed in the category of jobs at which defendant maintained long-term employment."

Scholl, the defense attorney, said he was still reading the long ruling but added that he was surprised and disappointed by the decision.

Montgomery has pleaded not guilty to two counts of killing a federal employee while committing a robbery and other charges. Prosecutors allege he and his son robbed to Tennessee banks between the post office shootings and the shootout in Mason.

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